Homily at St Dunstan’s, Woking, Day of Renewal – Saturday 7 March 2020
We believe in God.
Very familiar words… we say them every Sunday in the creed.
But believing is not just something we do in our heads, like Alice’s White Queen believing six impossible things before breakfast. To truly believe means to put our trust in something.
There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles. The texts decree that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, he finds a safe path by picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge which enables him to complete his quest – he literally took a leap of faith. At each stage of the journey, he has to entrust his life to the things he believes.
Today the church celebrates two martyrs, Saints Felicity and Perpetua – a serving girl and a noble lady. They were believers in the Roman Empire, 200 years after the birth of Jesus, when it was still illegal to follow the Lord. Perpetua famously said to her unbelieving father: “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” They were two of the most famous early martyrs – indeed, if you look online you can find the writings of St Perpetua from her time in prison – and their names are two of the women written into the First Eucharistic Prayer.
For those two saints, as indeed for many martyrs, being faithful to God meant answering the question “Are you a follower of Jesus?” when a positive answer meant death. For other saints, being faithful to God meant choosing to lay down their lives for others – most famously, St Maximilian Kolbe trading his life for a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Many more saints did not die for Christ but lived for Christ: they are examples of what it means to love one’s neighbour with self-sacrificing love. Most religions in the world teach some version of “treat others you would like to be treated”. Our faith goes much deeper – we are called to love our enemies, work for the good of those who have no possibility of repaying us, and offer forgiveness without waiting for an apology.
How do we know this? We have the Living Word and the Written Word of God.
Our Living Word is Jesus Christ. In the coming weeks we will hear once again the Great Story of how he lived out his message of non-violence and forgiveness when he was taken prisoner; how he healed the ear of the one of the servants who came to support his capture; and how he restored St Peter to leadership following three acts of weakness and betrayal.
Our Written Word is the Bible, a rich collection. In the Gospels, we hear what the Living Word said and did among us. In the Letters of the New Testament, we hear the thoughts of the Apostles on what it means to live as followers of Jesus. When we read the Old Testament, we are reaching back to a time when God had only revealed part of his plan, and did so in hidden and veiled ways through prophets and through the events of history.
We are blessed to be people of the New Testament – blessed but also challenged, because we know what the Living Word asks of us. Just in the short portion of St Matthew’s writing we’ve heard today, there are many challenges. We can use these as an examination of conscience, and if we find ourselves lacking, we can take the opportunity to come to confession this afternoon. But remember – a good confession requires a ‘firm purpose of amendment’. Often, when I hear confessions, I ask the penitent: “What are you going to do differently in future?” Always be ready to answer that question!
When did you last pray for God to bless one of your enemies?
When did you last do a good deed or extend the hand of friendship to a person who is in no position to return the favour?
Is there anyone in your life you do not wish to forgive? Today is a good day to repent of unforgiveness – for later in this very Mass you will pray in the words of Jesus: “Father, insofar as there is someone in my life I don’t want to forgive, please do not forgive my sins either!” Maybe that’s not how we say the Lord’s Prayer – but that’s what it means!
Following Jesus is not easy. For the martyrs, it meant being ready to die a painful bodily death. For us, it means measuring ourselves against God’s word. God calls us to do something difficult – but we are not alone! The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.
Saints Perpetua and Felicity were faithful witnesses to that love by the way they died. We can be faithful witnesses by the way we live – but only if we choose to live God’s way. So today I invite you to make a decision – don’t be a Catholic In Name Only. Don’t be a Sunday Catholic who turns up to pray for one hour a week and fails to think about God for the other 167? If you want to be famous in heaven, spend your time on earth seeking God’s will – and you will know the happiness that only God can give.